Ernest, while not as well known as his older brother, was certainly as accomplished. He could play any instrument he picked up, be it ‘ukulele, saxophone, flute, Tahitian drum or Hawaiian gourd. During one recording session he borrowed a harp —an instrument he’d never played before —and showed its frustrated owner how to strum it correctly.
He had particular taste and, like his brother, was a born perfectionist. He loved jazz and regularly played sax and clarinet in a jazz band at the Hollywood Palladium. Rock ’n’ roll was another story. After Hollywood composer Dimitri Tiomkin asked Ernest to play “sloppier” on a rock song, he refused future jobs.
Though Ernest played Hawaiian steel guitar, he didn’t much care for the instrument, so true to form he set about improving it. He puzzled over how to get a broader range of chords that could handle the diversity of the music he liked to play. In 1943 he drafted plans for his ideal instrument, but wartime restrictions on metal prevented him from building it until 1946. That year he constructed an oddlooking contraption with a steel guitar’s fretboard mounted on legs and connected by pulleys to wooden pedals. Ernest’s wife Lydia thought it looked hideous— but said she’d never heard anything more beautiful. Ernest had created a steel guitar with a full chordal range, one that could sound as lavish as a full string section or as singular as a banjo.
Over the years, Ernest wrote hundreds of his own compositions and collaborated on countless albums. He continued to play his pedal steel guitar invention throughout his career. In 1952 he developed a second pedal steel guitar, but he couldn’t perfect it to his exacting standards. He handed the plans to Freddie, who went on to produce it at Fender. Ernest’s design ultimately became the Fender 1000 Pedal Guitar— which to this day continues to set the standard for instruments of its type.